Tales From The South: The Last Days of Ray Winder Field
On a muggy Thursday night in July 2006, program in hand, I took a seat in the bleachers behind home plate at Little Rock’s Ray Winder Field, home of the Arkansas Travelers, a Double-A minor-league baseball team. The Wurlitzer was pumping out the chestnut “Here We Go, Travelers, Here We Go [Clap, Clap].” The program was filled with badly-designed ads for local businesses, like pawn shops and towing companies and featured several “Lucky Number” pages with figures in red to be matched with those announced between innings over the PA. The numbers were both unnecessarily high (No. 13990 on page 25, in my case) and, given the sparse crowd and limited program sales, always tantalizingly close to being a winner. I missed by one number, 13889, a free round of golf at the Eagle Creek Country Club.
Attendance for the game, in which free team card sets were given to the first 500 kids, was announced at 2,703 for the 6,000-capacity stands. But I’d have been surprised if there were 1,000 people there. You could clearly hear ball meet leather — not only from a fastball in the catcher’s mitt but also from a long fly landing in an outfielder’s glove.
I hadn’t been to a Travelers game since I’d moved to New York 20 years before, but I was in town for my 30th high school reunion, and the team was leaving Ray Winder Field after that season for a new stadium being constructed across the river in North Little Rock. The old ballpark, named for an early general manager of the team, was the one constant, since the players were always changing. And for a decade of summers in my early life, the utilitarian concrete and I-beam place served as snack shop, social club, playground and memory palace.
Not much had changed since then. The ticket booth still dispensed a small two-part orange voucher, which the turnstile attendant separated, returning the half reading RAIN CHECK. The décor of the concession area, just as I remembered it, resembled a 1970s rec room with its fake wood paneling. The press box, suspended in seeming perilous fashion from the roof, was an open gondola, cooled by ceiling fans; and the men’s room, as then, featured one long communal urinal, at which one had to overcome fear of public micturition or else suffer the effects of consuming numerous Sno-Cones and Cokes.
From my seat in the bleachers, I spotted a family friend, Bert, in the box seats, in the same section his family and mine had held season tickets some four decades before. I made my way down (no usher checked my bleacher stub) and sat next to him. He was cooling himself with a miniature fan attached to a water bottle. His son Frank, a high school classmate of mine, shortly joined us.
“Marguerite’s over there in the smoking section,” said Bert, mentioning a longtime neighboring box-seat holder. “She’ll be back shortly.” Marguerite was an ardent keeper of her own scorecard, mastering, as I once had, the runic code that documented the game: 6-3 for a ground-out to the shortstop, a shaded-in diamond for a run scored. A month earlier, the last time I’d been in Little Rock, she had come, as had Bert and his family, to the memorial service for my brother, Walt, with whom I’d roamed Ray Winder Field long ago and who had died unexpectedly just after his 50th birthday of a severe arterial blockage. Now, some kids about the age we were then sat on the concrete terrace above the dugout, dealing out their free player cards in an invented game.
In those days, I read the box scores in the daily paper and subscribed to the Sporting News, but I had no major-league allegiances. When I was growing up in Little Rock in the 1960s and ’70s, the only professional sports team in town was the Travs, then an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals (and now of the even-more distant Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim). The Travs had similar uniforms, with the dual redbirds perched on a bat across the chest, the cursive “Travelers” underneath in the style of the parent team’s “Cardinals.” Some of the better players, who came through, like Keith Hernandez, went on to star for the big club, but the association didn’t translate for me. I was a Travelers fan; the Cardinals, I could take or leave.
A minor-league fan is the most sweetly melancholic of sports fans. We know the players are not really there to win but to perform individually in order to reach the next level. Most of them, at least in Double A, never will move on; their baseball dreams end in places like Little Rock, Altoona, Mobile and Corpus Christi. Unlike the big-league fans, who demand flawlessness from their millionaires, the only froth a bush-league fan gets into is the one on top of his beer. And while Albert Pujols may inspire awe among urbanites with his Olympian skill, the flaws of our struggling prospects and aging has-beens are all too apparent, and we love them more for their faults. The players separated from us by a chicken-wire backstop are just a-dropped-fly-away from jobs like ours, so we can’t be too hard on them. In my youth, the worst we might do is call out “Mo-des-to!” naming the franchise in California where an underperforming player would be demoted.
The marginal player who most caught my imagination in my youth was Lenny Boyer, the least talented of the baseball-playing Boyer brothers, three of whom made the majors. A light-hitting, error-prone third baseman, Boyer inspired this bit of doggerel from my 8-year-old poet’s pen: Lenny Boyer, Number 11, I sure hope you Go to heaven.
This year’s Lenny Boyer was a catcher named Brent Del Chiaro, who was batting .133 and had struck out in more than a third of his 84 at-bats. He went down once more on strikes. Bert looked over his shoulder at another fan, and said, with a good-natured laugh, “But he did it swinging this time.”
In that familiar section, I was as soaked in nostalgia as in sweat. From that place in summers past, I’d dash to the dugout fence to plead with the batboy to hand over broken bats. I still have one from a player named Wayne Dees, now apparently a golf-club repairer in Alabama, Google tells me. From those seats, I’d first learned that I would need glasses because I couldn’t read the scoreboard, and as I got older, I’d been distracted from the action on the field by the prettiness of the players’ wives — and then glad I’d gotten glasses. Out past the left field fence was the Arkansas National Guard’s Ricks Armory building, the site of the prom I’d attended as a high school senior with a cheerleader named Susan, who at the reunion later that weekend wouldn’t remember me.
As the innings wore on and the humidity soaked the fans and the San Antonio Missions built a 7-2 lead, Bert, Marguerite, and much of the rest of the crowd headed home; most of them had to work the next day, after all. I stuck around, and the Travelers pushed across three runs in the bottom of the 8th to come within two. The management rewarded those who’d remained by announcing that Pabst Blue Ribbon was available at the concession stand for $1, and I paid for a beer with the coins in my pocket. In the 9th, the Travs mounted yet another rally, bringing one run home with two on and two out. As the scattered few began to clap in unison — the organist had also gone home — outfielder Matt Pali flied to right to end the game. Del Chiaro, on deck, missed his chance for redemption. The players on base jogged to the dugout and congratulated each other modestly on at least making a game of it. I killed my PBR and stood up to leave.
It was a sweetly melancholic ending. Our team had lost, yes — by one run, just as my lucky number in the program had missed by one — but it was impossible to feel angry or disappointed. Our flawed players, the eccentric old park, and the intimate, familiar crowd had provided an occasion for empathy, a celebration of the perfectly ordinary even as life cuffs you around: your brother dies too soon; your prom date forgets you; and you strike out more than a third of the time.
Then, on the way out the gate, for the last time, I discovered it was bread night at Ray Winder Field, and everyone who’d stayed got two free loaves to swing in each hand on the way to the parking lot.
As an official sponsor, along with Argenta Arts Foundation, of "Tales from the South," a radio program taped each Tuesday at Starving Artist Cafe in North Little Rock, Ark., featuring southerners telling their own true stories, AY brings you this monthly feature of highlights from "Tales from the South." The program is broadcast Thursdays at 7 p.m. on KUAR (FM89.1) in central Arkansas. You can find it streaming online at kuar.org; or listen along with 140 million European listeners on World Radio Network Sundays at 9 a.m. at wrn.org. For more information, log onto talesfromthesouth.com.
Little Rock native Jay Jennings is the author of Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City, a 2010 “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.